Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Clean For Gene

Nobody in the punditry world perplexes me more than Mark Steyn. The ususal rightwing suspects fawn over him as if he were a cross between Aristotle and Jefferson. His writing turns up everywhere, most bizarrely in his obituary column in the Atlantic Monthly. The valuable two pages ought to be used for a column by their excellent book critic, Benjamin Schwarz; or almost anybody else.

The subject of his obit in the March issue is Eugene McCarthy, who died in December. Steyn makes one of the more interesting political figures of the last half century boring by forcing him into his political mold:

There's something to be said for taking the view that, regardless of the merits of this or that foreign war, once you're in it you might as well win it. Alternatively, there's something to be said for the position that, if you're going to cut and run, do it quick and get over it, as the British did when they abandoned Aden, on the Arabian coast, the day before McCarthy launched his presidential campaign. . .

But to cut your losses and then mire yourself in an interminable psychological quagmire of your own has little to recommend it. "Vietnam casts long shadows," we're told, but not so much across the nation at large as over the Democratic Party. Forty years after McCarthy's swift, brutal destruction of the most powerful Democrat in the second half of the twentieth century, it remains unclear whether his party will ever again support a political figure committed to waging serious war, any war: Clinton bombed more countries in a little over six months than the supposed warmonger Bush has hit in six years, but, unless you happened to be in that Sudanese aspirin factory or Belgrade embassy, it was always desultory and uncommitted . . . Gene McCarthy's brief moment in the spotlight redefined the party's relationship with the projection of military force. That's quite an accomplishment. Whether it was in the long-term strategic interests of either the party or American liberalism is another question.

. . . In 1968, he was the indispensable man whose charm was that he didn’t regard himself as such. Having been dispensed with by his party, he spent the next quarter- century insisting on his relevance . . .

I defy any rational person -- which leaves out Steyn -- to make Bill Clinton's 1998 Sudan bombing relevant to the life of Gene McCarthy. Steyn neglected to mention that McCarthy had endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980, or been supported by Russell Kirk in 1976 ("McCarthy was a conservative . . . He read seriously and wrote intelligently In the White Houses -- per impossible -- he might have turned the most imaginatively conservative of presidents."--The Sword of Imagination). McCarthy's opposition to our open-border immigration policy goes unmentioned by Steyn as well. Scott McConnell's far better obit in the American Conservative says twice as much of value about McCarthy in half the words.

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